Blake Wong ’17 sat across from his tutor, reciting his answers to the latest ACT practice test. The room, he said, felt like home, flooded with natural light and complete with warm wooden cabinets.
“Yup,” “Yes,” “Correct,” his tutor said after each answer. His anticipation was rising after each correct answer. “Could this be the time I get them all right?” he thought. He hadn’t received a single incorrect answer so far, and had one question left. “Question 75. C?” Wong asked. “Correct.”
A flood of relief rushed over him. He sat back in his chair, and for the first time thought “Yes, we’re getting there. We’re almost done.” The “we” refers to him and his ACT tutor, Sally Shultz (Brian ’11, Eric ’08), who he credits with helping to improve his scores on the exam he first took last April.
“I’d say my reading especially wasn’t up to par until I went to Sally and then there was a dramatic improvement,” Wong said. “I think definitely it’s the reason why I did pretty well.”
Yet, Wong’s improvement in his ACT scores came with a price. Wong said that he considered Shultz’s prices to be high. Shultz declined to comment on her exact prices.
Wong had tutoring sessions for around an hour per week for a period of nine months, and he said that both the time and money he invested into his preparation were worth it.
“The scores speak for themselves,” Wong said.
Wong added that attending a less expensive company would not have helped him improve as much.
“I think if I had gone to Compass, I wouldn’t have done as well,” Wong said. “I would say [Shultz] was definitely one of the driving forces in my improvement.”
Oceania Eshraghi ’18 considered using Shultz for test preparation, but she said that she decided not to due to her pricing.
“We tried to figure out if we could do less sessions with her so we could still get some in but not have to pay the full price, but she said that’s not allowed,” Eshraghi said.
Alexa Frandzel ’18 studies with Michael Fogelman, another private Los Angeles tutor, to prepare her for the ACT. Frandzel considers Fogelman’s pricing, $350 per hour, to be expensive. She doesn’t credit the high price of her tutor, however, to her improvement on the test.
“It just depends on how you and the tutor work together,” Frandzel said. “If you think the same way, then it’s a good match. And if you don’t think the same way, then obviously you’re not going to learn as efficiently. So I don’t think pricing matters as much as learning quality and compatibility.”
She said that in addition to student-tutor compatibility, hard work and motivation contribute greatly to student success.
“I think even if you have a really expensive tutor, you could not try at all and not do that well,” Frandzel said. “So I think it’s a matter of your own personal push and drive, and the tutor is just there to help you along the way.”
The College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, wanted to eliminate the advantage that students who use tutors may have when they revamped the SAT last April, CNN reported in February.
The College Board partnered with Khan Academy, a nonprofit online learning resource for students, to provide free online SAT tutoring that is accessible to every student.
According to Reuters, the new SAT has actually given a disadvantage to students of a lower socio-economic background by making the math section more word-dense.
In addition to free online tutoring options, Harvard-Westlake students who are on financial aid can utilize discounted in-person tutoring from certain test preparation companies.
“If someone is forthcoming about financial difficulties surrounding test prep, we can usually figure out a way, through the relationships we have, to help them with that,” Upper School Dean Chris Jones said.
Despite the discounted resources that are available, Fogelman believes that the high price of tutoring gives an advantage to students of higher income families.
“The fact that people from a higher socioeconomic background can afford tutors and prep creates a clear disadvantage and hopefully the colleges understand as they balance the importance of test scores and everything else on a student’s application,” Fogelman said.
He said that because of the inequality of the system, Fogelman has offered financial aid to students before.
“It’s definitely something that I’d like to do more of, and it’s a very inequitable situation,” Fogelman said
Shultz said she started her practice by helping “undeserved kids” with their college applications and saw the need to also guide them through the testing process.
“I would love to expand my practice to include more underserved students, but economic realities have made this difficult without support from the administration,” Shultz said. “I have built my life around volunteering and will continue to do so in the near future.”
Shultz added that she tries to give students a more holistic experience than just SAT or ACT prep.
“I teach far beyond the standardized tests,” Shultz said. “My sessions include discussing current events, sharing favorite ‘good reads,’ and encouraging and tracking efforts to volunteer in the community We are trying to become better citizens while getting a stellar score along the way.”
However, Fogelman believes that despite the efforts of tutors, inequity still exists. He said that the advantage granted to students of a higher socio-economic background is not unique to test preparation.
“I think that’s a big issue, but it’s a big issue with all of education,” Fogelman said.